No escape from the First Noble Truth

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False hope is a universal problem in the mainstream religions.

It is not only a problem in Christianity. It is also a problem in Buddhism. Many people come to Buddhism looking for some change, some improvement, something that will get them out of a pickle. Perhaps hope is not a problem in itself. The real problem is that they are expecting some external factors — a holy book, a guru, a savior, a technique, a system — to do it for them. And they expect some magical transformation. This is essentially a case of idolatry. It is also magical thinking.

In Buddhism, we have the Three Marks of Existence. They are:

  1. All conditioned things are impermanent.
  2. All conditioned things are dukkha (unsatisfactory)
  3. All dhammas (all things conditioned or unconditioned) are without self, i.e. without independent existence.

These basic laws of existence will not change, no matter how long you have practiced or how great your guru is. They are universal, immutable laws. Stop dreaming.

Perhaps we should go back to the First Noble Truth. Many Buddhists and Buddhist teachers try to sugarcoat it. They shouldn’t. Psychotherapist, M. Scott Peck, put it into an easily understood term that is accessible to all. He said in his book, The Roadless Traveled:

Life is difficult. This is a great truth, one of the greatest truths. It is a great truth because once we truly see this truth, we transcend it. Once we truly know that life is difficult-once we truly understand and accept it-then life is no longer difficult. Because once it is accepted, the fact that life is difficult no longer matters.

One rendition of the First Noble Truth is “All life is suffering.” This is not pessimistic. It is realistic. Does practice help? Of course, it does. Will practice eliminate suffering from your life totally? No. But it will help you reduce self-induced suffering. And much of our suffering is self-induced and self-inflicted. With practice and with mindfulness, you gradually reduce the self-inflicted pain. You learn to avoid the Second Arrow. You stop making the matter worse. You don’t rub salt into your wound.

Perhaps not everything in life is suffering. There are indeed both joy and sorrow. But we should expect life to be difficult. We should expect it to be full of challenges. Some of these challenges are from the human condition. Others are natural laws. Even the most accomplished practitioner cannot escape the laws of nature. Buddhism is not magic.

Above all, accept impermanence (including the inevitable parting from loved ones and our eventual death) wholeheartedly, not grudgingly. Embrace impermanence. See it as a blessing, not a curse. When we learn to accept the inevitable, we will see its beauty. We will learn to adapt to it creatively. This is the art of living. The Theravada master, Ajahn Chah, gave us this down-to-earth advice, “But when I know that the glass is already broken, every minute with it is precious.”

Life is short. It is also full of challenges. But it is precisely because of this that life is precious and full of exquisite beauty. Enlightenment is not about learning to do the magical, thus avoiding natural laws and the human condition. It is learning to accept what is, gratefully, and with appreciation.

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